More than $1 million in stolen dinosaur bones shipped to China, Justice officials say

More than $1 million in stolen dinosaur bones shipped to China, Justice officials say

Eduardo Cuevas
 USA TODAYplayShow CaptionHide Caption#videoDetailsToggle{color:var( –color-dove-gray,rgba(0,0,0,.6));cursor:pointer;display:inline-block;font-family:var(–sans-serif,sans-serif);font-size:var(–type-7);font-weight:var( –font-weight-bold,900);line-height:var(–spacer-twentyfour,24px);margin-bottom:-8px}#vdt_hide{margin-bottom:10px}.vdt-flex[hidden]{display:none}.vdt-svg{fill:var( –color-dove-gray,rgba(0,0,0,.6));height:var(–spacer-twentyfour,24px);width:var(–spacer-twentyfour,24px)}Two rare dinosaur skeletons up for auctionTwo prehistoric predators are going up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York. The skeletons of a Pteranodon and a Plesiosaur are both going up for sale, with the Pteranodon expected to fetch upwards of $6 million. (July 11)(AP Video: David R. Martin)AP

Federal prosecutors had several bones to pick in a Salt Lake City courthouse this week. 

On Thursday, a federal grand jury returned a 13-count indictment against four people accused of selling more than $1 million in stolen dinosaur bones taken from public lands in southeastern Utah and shipping them to China, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah announced in a news release.

“By removing and processing these dinosaur bones to make consumer products for profit, tens of thousands of pounds of dinosaur bones have lost virtually all scientific value, leaving future generations unable to experience the science and wonder of these bones on federal land,” U.S. Attorney Trina A. Higgins said in a statement.

The case involves about 150,000 pounds of paleontological resources officials say were illegally removed between March 2018 and “at least” March 2023. In addition, the four defendants are accused of causing more than $3 million in damage, including the losses commercial and scientific value of the bones and the cost of restoring and repairing them.

Utah residents Vint and Donna Wade are accused of buying the dinosaur bones removed, by two unnamed people, who excavated them from federal land, according to the indictment.

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The Wades, who are 65 and 67, who owned a business called Wade’s Wood and Rocks, in Moab, resold the bones at gem and mineral shows, according to documents.

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Among the people who bought the Wades’ items were Steven Willing, 67, of Los Angeles, and his son, Jordan Willing, 40, of Ashland, Oregon, investigators said. The Willings owned a company, JMW Sales, and are accused of illegally exporting dinosaur bones to China. The indictment says they mislabeled them and lowered their stated value to prevent federal agents from finding them. 

The Wade and the Willing families began working together to ship the items to China, investigators said. In one example of their scam, documents noted, in April 2020, the families labeled a shipment “Industrial Stone,” “Landscape Rock,” and “Turquoise,” but the shipment actually contained dinosaur bones,

Find out: Did you know most states have an official dinosaur or fossil? It’s true! Here’s yours.

In addition to facing charges of conspiracy against the U.S. and theft of U.S. property, prosecutors said, the four defendants will face prosecution for violating the federal Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, a 2009 law protecting fossils and other remnants of organisms preserved in or on the earth’s crust. They’re also charged with falsely reporting exports and money laundering.

All four have entered initial pleas of not guilty, court records show.

Jordan Willing’s attorney, Rachel Cannon, said in an email her client “vigorously disputes the charges, and looks forward to having his day in court.” Steven Willing’s attorney declined to comment on the allegations. Lawyers for the Wades did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday.

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Among the cases prosecuted under the federal paleontological law is one involving two Alaska men sentenced to prison in 2019 for stealing a fossilized woolly mammoth tusk from a national museum in Anchorage. The duo admitted in their pleas that they’d cut the tusk into pieces before selling them.

Public land managed by federal and state agencies encompasses about 71% of Utah, the indictment said. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Moab field office oversees about 1.8 million acres, including the Morrison Formation, which has large quantities of bones, fossils and other paleontological resources from the Jurassic period about 145 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The Morrison site is part of the Dinosaur National Monument and has remains of Allosauruses and Stegosauruses.

“Southeastern Utah is a well-known destination for visitors to experience paleontology on the landscape,” Greg Sheehan, the Utah state director for the BLM, said in a statement. “The public deserves the opportunity to benefit from and appreciate prehistoric resources on the lands.”

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